Sylvia’s Shark Eyes

 Sylvia's Shark Eyes

The corridors of the Toshiba hospital are quiet this time of night. It's only the fluorescent hum of the lights and the whisper tones of TVs that fill the space. The nurse leans down to check the tube that runs into Sylvia’s arm. I look at the patches on the nurse’s blue smock. One advertises Microsoft, one carries the logo of a popular Barbecue restaurant chain, and another extols the virtues of herbal medicines. When she’s finished, the nurse gives me a calm look, and swoops out into the empty hall leaving me and Sylvia alone with the odor of stale urine badly masked with ammonia and some bitter citrus air freshener that spurts at regular intervals from the dispenser on the wall. The room is a cold shade of off white that gives me a constant feeling of paranoia. The TV that hangs from the wall is muted. That’s just as well. All of the programs are thinly veiled commercials for Wal-Mart, or Sony, or Honda. Between the infomercials are old fashioned advertisements for shit that we don’t need. The funeral home adds are the hardest to take. Why do all morticians have permanently affixed looks of utter magnanimity ? 

Sylvia’s chest doesn’t rise with the sort of steady rhythm that you would expect. It hitches violently up and down at odd intervals, and with each jerk she produces gurgling aquatic sounds; like a diver whose mask has sprung a leak. Little bubbles form in her nostrils from time to time and I realize that she is almost all of the way gone. Her hair used to be sleek, shiny and violet scented. It has grown ragged and thin and dirty. The only thing worse than dying is not dying fast enough. That I believe for sure. 

She starts to open her eyes, and they just roll back into her skull like a shark’s eyes in the ecstasy of a feeding frenzy. Eyes like glass with all of the life drained out of them look through me as I stroke her hair and say Hush, hush now. Dead doll eyes.

Since the doctors really cranked up her morphine intake she hasn’t really been able to talk. She fades from fugue to fugue, dream to oblivion. We used to make the daily trek down the hall to the chapel for the courses in consumerism. They don’t call it that, of course. They call it “citizenship”. It’s all about choosing the furniture that will make your life worthwhile, or the car that defines you. It’s very important, the priest says, to have the right clothes. We don’t go to those classes anymore.

I pay the extra fee to be able to stay in her room. For an extra seventy-five dollars a week I could have a cot, instead of this hard chair. Our food is delivered to the room, straight from the McDonalds on the first floor. I’ve been eating her meals as well as mine since they put the feeding tube in her arm. I’ve started to wonder why they bother feeding her at all. 

Sylvia nods off again, and I get up. The banks of pay phones in the hall take bills and credit cards. I have to call MasterCard to request an extension on my credit line. This will be my third extension this year. My APR is sure to go up. God I hope my credit holds out as long as she does.

When I get back to the room she is almost awake. Almost awake is as good as it gets these days. I can remember when we would curl up next to each other in bed, each of us with a book. More often than not I would have to put my book down every few minutes to listen to her read me a bit of hers. I didn’t mind. She had to share whatever she found funny, or startling, or interesting, or plainly beautiful. She can’t read anymore. That part of her is gone. Soon all of her will be gone. I guess that’s true for all of us.

I try my best to produce a smile and display it to my small, withered, dying girl. My father lived to be sixty-four. I can’t remember anyone else who lived that long. Sylvia and I are old at forty. Most of our friends have already succumbed to one of the multifoliate cancers that seem to run roughshod over this country. I think that metastasis sounds like some rare and delicate flower that blooms much too often. Melanoma sounds like a fruit, rotten and black inside. Carcinoma sounds like some tropical city pushed up against the edge of a warm green ocean. Words can deceive. Words can trick you. Words can kill.

I think that she may be trying to speak. She coughs and gurgles but can’t form words. I lean in, and try to tell her that it’s okay. It’s all right. It’s a lie, but one I repeat over and over with the hope that if I repeat the lie enough I can somehow make it true. Maybe if I believe it I can, just by sheer force of will, bend reality to my desire. I don’t think so, though. I think that reality will bend me to its will. 

Sylvia’s dying. I know that just as well as the faceless nurses with their skin of advertisements know it. No one has lied to me about this singular fact. No one has hidden or obfuscated the truth. That’s the one thing they do really well here: being blunt. That and keeping you alive until the money runs out. They’ve made a science out of prolonging illness right up to the edge of bankruptcy. They can’t cure, they can’t comfort. But they can profit. You can’t bring food into the hospital. Anything you eat has to come from one of the restaurants that have rented space on the first floor. Everything here costs money. If she needs an extra blanket, they’ll charge my credit card. I could have a pillow for two dollars a day. A pillowcase will cost another fifty cents.

I settle into my chair and pick up the magazine from her bed side stand. I paid for it; I may as well read the damn thing. I know that it’s all ads. Even the articles are all laudatory reviews of items advertised in the pages. I remember when magazines were different. I read an article about the great benefits of an expensive water purification system. Then I skim a puff piece about Max Factor lip stick. I can’t concentrate on the damn thing. 

The doctors want to start her on some new drugs. They’ll be more expensive, but could really improve her situation. This treatment is the best available, they say. If I don’t have enough left on my credit cards I could see the business office about a personal line of credit with the hospital. They could offer me a percentage rate barely above prime. It’s the best thing for her, they assure me in hushed tones of absolute sincerity. 

We used to take vacations every year. We could never afford anything extravagant, but we made trips all over the country. We never made it to any of the important tourist attractions. While all of the other people were flocking to the Bush Memorial Shopping Mall and Entertainment Complex in Houston, we were seeing the desert. While the wise shoppers were visiting the Uber Wal-Mart in Denver, we were looking at the mountains. While the well off were at the Disney mega store in times square we had the Museum of Modern Art all to ourselves. What idiots we were. 

The hospital’s department of biological recycling wants her organs. Some of them anyway. If I’ll sign them over now, they can credit my bill and save me money in the long run. It’s her eyes they covet the most. While the cancer has ravaged most of her body, it has left her eyes untouched. Their marble quality comes from the deterioration of her brain, and not from any actual damage to them. I’ll sell my own eyes before I let them have hers. I’ll gouge her beautiful barely blue green eyes from her skull before I let them harvest them. I know why they want them. There is a huge market for eyes in Taiwan. Human eyes are a rare delicacy, and people pay tens of thousands of dollars per eye. 

Every time the IV bag gets low another nurse rushes in to change it. They never let it get empty. The cocktail of drugs and vitamins and saline and god knows what is always in ample supply. Each new bag is another charge against my bill. I’m not certain of the total. I don’t think I want to know. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the same nurse twice.

I kneel beside the bed, and take her fragile little hand in mine. I hold it tightly, but not too tight. Too much pressure feels like it could crush every bone. She is brittle. The past eight weeks have really worn her down. The organism that is eating her is insatiable. It devours flesh, bone, blood, and mind. The drugs are eating her too. They are eating the part of her that thinks. The part of her that loves. 

Watching her drain away I’ve started to feel regret. I shouldn’t have brought her here. I should have kept her home, and let her die in our bed. Now that she’s here they won’t let her leave. Not while she’s alive. And they won’t let her die until I’m out of money.

I wonder what they’d do if I suffocated her. I could slip this pillow over her face, and hold it in place until she just disappeared. They’d probably charge me another thousand dollars for an unauthorized use of the pillow. I think about putting ground up glass in her eyes to ruin them. I think about injecting rat poison into her IV. I think about breaking her sweet little neck. I think about maybe forcing all of my tranquilizers down her throat. Maybe then she could rest. Maybe I could too. 

I can’t bring her back. I can’t save her. And I can’t take her home. But I can end this. I pick up the pillow and lean in close to her. I let my lips brush against hers. She can’t kiss back. I grit my teeth. As the pillow slides over her face I whisper so low that no one could hear:

Good night my darling dear one. Good night.

I put all of my weight behind the pillow. She doesn’t struggle. I can feel the sticky wet of tears begin to move down my cheek. Then they are on me. Three security guards in red uniforms covered with patches advertising Dell computers, Chevy trucks, and Swanson TV dinners. They have my arms behind me at an uncomfortable angle. A new nurse hovers into the room and steals the pillow away. I imagine for just an instant that I see begging in Sylvia’s shark eyes. 

One of the guards says something about this going on my bill. I slump back into my chair and start waiting for my credit to run out.


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